Long before the advent of the Roman and Gaullic (French) empires, Greece was the fountainhead of what we currently know and admire as the Europe, and indeed the Western civilization of today. With thinkers and philosophers like Socrates, Pluto and Aristotle, Gods of music like Apollo, generals and heroes like Alexander the Great, accomplishments across architecture, music, the fine arts, literature and a span of conquest that extended across Europe, the Middle East and most of Asia including India, “the Sun truly did not ever set on the Greek Empire”!
The parallels between the Hellenistic religious traditions of ancient Greece, with its Gods like Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon and Goddesses like Athena, Aphrodite etc. and the pantheon of Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism are striking indeed! My research on comparative religion reveals that while idol worship from the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt and South and Central America have been virtually rendered extinct thanks to the socio-religio-cultural conquests of Christianity and Islam, Hinduism is the only polytheistic religion with currently prevalent practices of idol worship that has survived over the last 6,000 years.
So for me, raised on a staple diet of Greek mythology in our childhood in India, a voyage to Greece was well and truly the stuff that dreams are made of! Our penchant for Greek food that rubs off on our 7 year old daughter Uma, provided significant attraction for, and tantalized her with the notion of sampling authentic Greek delicacies like the Gyro, the souvlaki and the baklava in Greece!
In early 2007, we decided to fulfill our long cherished dream with a vacation to Greece over Christmas and went thru the some intense planning to ensure that every conceivable detail – flights, hotels, attractions, restaurants etc. were taken care of well in advance. Incidentally, Greece and the Mediterranean parts of Europe and the Middle East are probably the only travel destinations over the Winter/Christmas months since most of Europe is freezing and does not lend itself well for travel with young kids at this time.
It was the fulfillment of a spiritual saga for us to go to the Acropolis and behold the Parthenon, the legendary Erechtheion and the Temple of Zeus, all of which we had read about in our childhood. However, I was little prepared for the profound spiritual impact I experienced at the Acropolis – the epicenter of the ancient Greek empire. The Parthenon, the original temple of the Greek Gods, has over the years, been turned into a church, a mosque a synagogue, destroyed, desecrated, burnt down and yet, has stood the ravages of time! Besides the Parthenon, the majestic remains of the Erechtheion, that was re-built to the Goddess Athena (from whom Athens derives its name) and the Temple of Athena Nike are monuments that simple astound and mesmerize. Particularly fascinating at the base of the Acropolis is the Sanctuary of Dionysus that provided a forum for learning in these sylvan surroundings in the lap of Mother Nature, thousands of years ago!
Equally mesmerizing for us was the Theater (Odeon) of Herod Atticus (also at the base of the Acropolis) where Yanni, the prodigal son of Greece, delivered his now legendary ‘Live at the Acropolis’ musical performance, that is perhaps, one of the best selling albums in the new age instrumental music genre over the last 20 years. I closed my eyes and could visualize him presenting his concert with his signature élan and pizazz, dressed in white, in my mind’s eye – my family and I could easily go back to Athens for an Yanni encore on a warm Greek summer night, at the Odeon of Herod below the Acropolis, at the drop of a hat!
An anecdote that tickled our collective imagination was the gift of the olive tree by the warrior Goddess Athena when she was contesting Poseidon for protection of the city. The otherwise humble olive tree that Athena contributed against the salt water stream from Posiedon has become an enduring icon of the Greek culture and heritage, and contributed to this amazing city being named after its patron warrior Goddess, that otherwise may well have been called ‘Poseidonia’!
Please plan on spending 3-5 days to get a feel for Athens including the well appointed museums with artifacts from the golden era of Greece, the majestic Olympic stadium as well as the port of Piraeus from which you can take a boat or a hydrofoil to the utterly picturesque islands in the Greek Cyclades. Do take the time to experience one of the largest Christmas trees and celebrations in Europe at the Syntagma Square at the center of Athens, if you happen to be in this majestic capital city of Greece over Christmas.